Teaching Pentascales: My Process

Once I’m 100% sure that a student can reliably find whole steps and half steps from any key on the keyboard, we proceed to step two of the “learning major pentascales” process.

On their assignment page, I write this formula:

1 -2 -3 -4 -5

The letters stand for Start-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole. Of course, when I’m doing minors, we change the pattern to S-W-H-W-W. (Note: if you have a left-handed student, you can easily adapt this by changing the finger numbers to 5-4-3-2-1, but I usually teach the fingering for RH first.)

Next, I place a toy ring on the child’s RH 4th finger. You can find these at party stores for a few pennies. Watch for fun spider ones at Halloween! We point to each of the five fingers, starting at the thumb, and recite the pattern – Start, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole. I point out that the only place where a half-step will happen is on the ring finger. Some of my young ones don’t know the significance of “the ring finger,” so we might spend a few minutes talking about the tradition of wearing a ring on the 4th finger. If you’re feeling silly, you can even have a little ceremony: “Do you promise to practice pentascales every day, in sickness and in health, until you are promoted to the next level?”

Next, I invite the child to find the pattern on the piano, starting on a C. I insist that they say the pattern out loud as they play each note. Most can play the pattern on C with little difficulty, so we move on the the G pentascale. Since there are no accidentals, most do this easily, too. Then we move to D, and most of them leave out the F#. So, I point out that one of those notes sounded like it didn’t belong, and ask them to double-check that formula and make sure that all of the whole steps were really whole steps. Now, they’re starting to get it. I think it’s important to get away from C and G at the first lesson and get quickly into keys with sharps and flats. This gets them really using the formula, and not just mindlessly playing five notes in a row. It also gets their ear involved as they miss notes, realize it sounded “funny,” and go back to apply the formula more carefully. For some children, it helps to walk the pattern on my keyboard floor mat. Everyone gets to take their ring home and practice with it.

For this stage of the process, my goal is simply to have them find the pattern on the piano, not necessarily play it with facility. I do insist on a good hand shape. After I know they can find the formula, then we work on smooth, even playing and I assign about 4 pentascales each week, depending on the student. Some children can play them hands together from the start, but if not, we practice hands separately until they can put them together. I usually stick with the white key pentascales because by the time we’ve completed doing those and the white key minors, I know that they can find both patterns anywhere and most are ready to begin one-octave scales, played hands separately.

Once they’ve learned to play all of the major pentascales, I have them write them on the staff. They get stars on a progress chart in the studio as they progress after learning all the white key major pentascales, the white key minor pentascales, and having successfully written both on staff paper.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Pentascales: My Process”

  1. Just found this blog about using the ring to help with learning whole steps and half steps for the pentascale. I know it's an old blog entry, but it's still being read today!! 😀 Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Teaching Half and Whole Steps – Lowe Piano Studio

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